Tag Archives: Sigmund Freud

#germanlitmonth 2016 – Robert Seethaler: The Tobacconist

The Tobacconist (Der Trafikant) is after A Whole Life (Ein ganzes Leben) the second novel by Robert Seethaler that was published in English translation. I read it in the original German, therefore my review cannot do justice to the English translation.

The year is 1937. Franz Huchel, the main character of the book, is a 17-year-old from the Austrian countryside, who grows up as a single child of a single mother. At the beginning of the book, Franz is very much a protected child, a namby-pamby, but after the unexpected death of his mother’s wealthy lover, the days of dreaming are over: he is sent to Vienna for work. His employer, Otto Trsnjek, is also a former lover of his mother from pre-WWI days, and is running a trafik, a shop where people can buy tobacco, newspapers, stationery. Otto Trsnjek lost a leg in the war and with his shop he is a well-known presence in the neighborhood; he is teaching Franz how to properly read and understand the newspapers, but also the psychology of the different customers of the shop, and the characteristics of the different varieties of cigars they are selling (although none of the two is a smoker); and a few lessons about life in general. Otto’s tobacco shop becomes the new home of Franz, and it is from there where he learns to adapt to the big city.

With his mother Franz stays in touch via the picture postcards they are writing each other; it is from these postcards his mother learns about the major changes in Franz’ life: Franz falls in love with Anezka, a girl from Bohemia, and he gets acquainted with an old gentleman who is a regular customer of the tobacco shop: Sigmund Freud who is living nearby in the Berggasse, is buying cigars from Otto Trsnjek.

While the buxom Anezka with the charming tooth gap is awakening Franz’ sexuality and lust, the professor, who is taken in by the persistence with which the simple country boy is asking him for advice regarding his sorrows related to love and lust, is reassuring Franz. The frailness of the old professor, his fight with old age and the illness from which he is suffering since many years – the permanent pain and the problems with his jaw prosthesis are a recurring theme -, but also his frankness about how little he actually knows about the human psyche, impress Franz very much and the moment when the professor teaches him how to enjoy the smoking of a cigar on a park bench belong for sure to Franz’ most happy moments.

What would be in other times a normal coming-of-age story gets a twist because of the political events that are taking place in Austria at the time the story of Franz unwinds: 1938 is the year of the “Anschluss”, Austria is uniting with Nazi Germany, a development that is changing things forever in the lives of many people. Professor Freud is emigrating in the last moment (thanks to the organizational skills of his daughter Anna), socialists and other leftists are arrested or forced into suicide, and the tobacco shop is vandalized, and finally Otto Trsnjek is arrested by the Gestapo, a development that is seen by some neighbors with obvious glee, particularly by the rather disgusting butcher from next door, a sadistic figure as if from a play by Ödön von Horvath.

And Franz? He is still in doubt about Anezka, who appears and disappears without note on various occasions, and who displays her naked body in a “Varieté” (a kind of music hall), finally starting a relationship with a young SS officer for whom she is deserting Franz. When Franz is arrested in the tobacco shop which he is running after Otto’s death in the hands of the Gestapo, he locks the doors of the trafik because “you never know”. But when Anezka passes by the shop in March 1945, briefly before a major bombing raid, all that is left from the previous tobacco shop are some chairs and a note on which Franz had noted a dream he had, a habit he developed after Freud convinced him of the usefulness of this practice. Obviously, Franz never came back after his arrest, and it is easy to guess why.

Did I like the book? Yes, very much! There are a number of reasons for this. Seethaler writes a beautiful, elegant, effortless prose, and I hope that also the English translation will give a good idea of his stylistic abilities. As a professional actor (you can see him here in the movie Youth), Seethaler has obviously a good ear for dialogues and for the individual way of expression of each of his characters. He succeeds with very simple means to give the reader a clear indication about how each of the major figures in the book is speaking. Anezka for example comes from Bohemia, a region whose people were famous for their problems with the German umlauts, and a very few examples are already enough to have her voice practically in your ear. Another beautiful element are the postcards between Franz and his mother which in the beginning are full of platitudes but which develop into a real correspondence parallel to the process of Franz’ intellectual and sensual awakening. The atmosphere of the growing paranoia after the Anschluss, the outbursts of personal violence and sadism on a large scale of otherwise “normal” citizens that was without precedence even in Nazi Germany; the seemingly im-probable and “impossible” friendship between the simple Franz and the sophisticated Professor Freud; and the fine characterization of the inhabitants of Vienna – all this made me enjoy the book.

Franz is a hero in the typical German tradition of the simple, good-hearted, noble fool (“reiner Tor”); but contrary to Eichendorff’s Good-for-Nothing, The Tobacconist has no ending in which “everything, everything was delightful” – the exact opposite is true in this case. A Happy End is not possible in the time of Nazism.

It was particularly interesting for me to read this book for this year’s German Literature Month after I reviewed last year The Tortoises by Veza Canetti, a work that covers the same period in Vienna. Considering the recent very strong support of right-wing extremists by the voters of those political forces in Austria who represent the ugly side of the Austrian national character in the latest elections in the country, the book had also sometimes a chilling effect on me. The mentality that showed its ugly face after the Anschluss in 1938 is still existing and very widespread in Austrian society; however, the wave of successful political movements which are based on hatred of certain groups within a society is unfortunately not limited to Austria alone these days.



Robert Seethaler: Der Trafikant, Kein & Aber, Zürich 2012; The Tobacconist, Picador 2016, translated by Charlotte Collins


(This review is part of the German Literature Month, again hosted by my two blogger colleagues Caroline@beautyandthecat, and Lizzy@lizzysiddal, who are doing a great job promoting German literature in translation since years.)

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Glückel of Hameln’s Memoirs

Glückel of Hameln (1645-1724) was a remarkable woman. Not only could she read and write – in a time when most women had no formal education at all -, she also proved to be an energetic business woman after the early death of her first husband. That involved also extensive traveling in a time when this was difficult and dangerous. And on top of it the mother of fourteen children wrote the first autobiography of a woman in Germany.

Glückel’s memoirs were not written with the intention of a publication. They were meant as a distraction after her beloved husband’s passing and also with the idea to let her twelve surviving children (two more children had died early) and countless grandchildren know where they came from. There is also a strong educative element in her writing: look what happened to us and our friends, family and neighbors and learn from it! And learn to understand that you need to trust in God, but you need to be also wise in your own decisions.

As the name indicates, Glückel was born in Hameln, and got engaged at the age of 12, as was the habit at that time, to a boy called Chajm to whom she was married two years later. The young couple set shop in Hamburg, lived first with Chajm’s parents before they could afford their own small home.

Child after child was born while Chajm became a trader in gold, pearls and jewelery with a good hand for business. Although the marriage was arranged at an age that seems unsupportable from the point of view of today and was concluded in a rather business-like manner, Glückel and her husband seem to have been a good match. She speaks with the greatest expressions of respect and love of her husband, who seems to have been always attentive and respectful toward her and her family and the mutual children. His temper was obviously more on the soft side and as much as he enjoyed his trade and the money he made with it, the well-being of his family seems to have been his only real concern.

When he died at the age of 44, it must have been a catastrophe for his widow who was from one moment to the next alone and with very little funds but had to support many children who were still living with her at that time. But somehow she made it: against all odds, she keeps the business running, travels to fairs and business partners in Germany and Holland. But it came at a price: we can feel from her writing that at times she must have been completely worn out. When an offer from a rich banker from Metz to marry him arrives, she gives in, hoping that in her old age she will have a comfortable home after so many hardships. But her second husband goes bankrupt, she loses all her savings and has to live in her last years, again widowed with one of her children.

This is a remarkable book, not only because it is the first autobiography written by a woman from Germany. Also Glückel’s life was everything than dull and average, although she must have been a modest person that frequently blamed herself for her own mistakes; once she writes about a successful business transaction she never forgets to thank God or to mention the part that other people had in this success.

Since the book was meant for her family members, she refrains from mentioning the names of some persons that behaved badly towards her or her first husband when these persons were still alive at the time she wrote the autobiography. On the other hand she describes her emotions very openly when something bad happened to her or someone from the family. As a reader, I could not help but to admire her for her persistence when it came to do the best for her family. She comes across as a strong, very modest woman with an incredible energy and family sense. 

The book is touching in itself as the story of a woman in very hard times. But it offers also a lot of insights in the everyday life of people in Glückel’s days, and especially in the life of the Jews.

Jews were not people with equal rights at that time and that included in most places that they had to pay Leibzoll, a kind of customs duty for themselves when entering a town, a deeply discriminatory act only applied in relation to the Jewish part of the population. Since Germany was divided in more than 2000 independent territories, traveling was for Jews extremely difficult. Additionally there were big differences in the living conditions of the Jews depending on the place where they lived.

In Altona, now a suburb of Hamburg, then an independent town that belonged to Denmark, the situation was very satisfactory for the Jews. The Danish King was known for his liberal opinions and was considered a friend of the Jews.

In neighboring Hamburg the situation was different: the Senate, the representative government body of the rich traders and bankers was rather friendly to the Jews; the Burgerschaft, the lower house of the Hamburg parliament on the contrary made life for the Jews very difficult by introducing rules that made it almost impossible for Jews to live in Hamburg. (Exempted from these harsh rules were the Portuguese Jews, descendants of Jews from Portugal who had settled in Hamburg after the reconquista; the Teixeiras, the de Castros and other Sephardic families were already considered as “real” Hamburgers and held influential positions in Hamburg; a certain rift between the Sephardic and the Ashkenazy Jews is clearly visible from Glückel’s writing. Although they shared the same belief, there seems to have been very little contact between these two groups. The sophisticated Sephards seem to have thought not too highly of their Ashkenazy brethren.)

Even worse was the situation in places like Leipzig, an important trading place that most Jewish traders visited twice a year – but Leipzig had for a reason the reputation of being a particularly anti-Semitic town that exposed Jews regularly to harsh treatment and extortion.

It may be rather strange for us readers today that Glückel is always so concerned about money. There is not a single page and for sure not a single characterization of a person that forgets to mention the exact amount of money someone’s fortune is worth.

To marry off her children to a good, i.e. a wealthy family, is the major concern for her and her husband. The wedding “market” was small and match makers seem to have been an extremely important institution at that time. Marriage was the chance for upward social mobility and that was the main concern for parents at that time. In lucky cases – like obviously in Glückel’s first marriage – love developed once the complete strangers were married and got to know each other. But it seems to be the exception, not the rule at Glückel’s time.

This – for us – obsession with money has of course a reason: money provided a limited protection for the fragile existence of the Jews at that time. It was important not in itself, but as a means to buy favours, ensure loyalties, pay off extortionist governments, assure a comparatively elevated social status in the Jewish community. As a reader we never get the intention that Glückel or her husband were gready people; if necessary, they part easy with their money. But it wouldn’t have been reasonable in their position with so many children not to permanently think about their pecuniary situation.

Glückel’s autobiography also reflects political events, for example several wars which affected the life of the family or of friends and business partners. A particularly happy moment is the participation of the Prussian Crown Prince as a guest at the wedding of one of her children. I found it also extremely interesting to read about how much the Jews in Germany were affected by the appearance of the “false messiah” Sabbatai Zevi who was Glückel’s contemporary, although he lived far away, in the Ottoman Empire.

Another aspect of Glückel’s writing that I find fascinating are her descriptions of her or her husband’s traveling. As already mentioned, traveling was no fun, especially for Jews. And there were pirates, robbers, or marauding soldiers all over the place. (One of the rare funny moments in the autobiography is also related to a travel experience; it involves a good servant of Glückel who got a drinking problem – but I will not give away the story here.) Hamburg saw several pandemics at Glückel’s time, most notoriously the plague which spread a fear of visitors from Hamburg all over Germany for many years, a fear for which Glückel gives us readers also a very disturbing example in her autobiography.

The book is also rich in descriptions of Jewish life, the importance of community life and of celebrating the big feasts together. All in all this book was an interesting and touching reading experience, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

A word about the manuscript: Glückel wrote the manuscript in Hebrew script and in Western Yiddish language. Western Yiddish is even closer to Standard German than its Eastern Yiddish variation. The original text reads like an archaic German with plenty of Hebrew loan words; grammar, syntax and about 90% of the vocabulary are German.

The original manuscript was passing within the family from generation to generation; the first publication was issued in 1896 in Yiddish; Bertha Pappenheim, a descendant of Glückel – readers of the book Studies on Hysteria by Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud know her as Anna O., one of the most famous case studies in the history of psychoanalysis – , translated the book 1910 in German for a non-public edition that was circulated in the family; in 1913 a second German edition followed, this time for a general audience. Since that time also translations in other languages (also two times in English) have been published.

A truly fascinating autobiography!


The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln, transl. by Marvin Lowenthal, Schocken Books 1987

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

L1, L2, indirect – and a few more words on translations

When I have some free time, I love to browse blog posts of my fellow book bloggers. It is always interesting to see what the colleagues and friends are doing, which books I missed but should read soon, what they think about books I reviewed recently – and sometimes what they are thinking about other book-related topics.

As I have said several times before, I am much more aware now of the fact that translations matter and are extremely important. Even when you can speak and read five or six languages it will still widen your horizon beyond imagination when you have access to translated books. The availability and also the quality of translations are therefore two of the most important defining elements of an existing book market.

In an older blog post which I have just recently discovered, one of my favorite blogger colleagues, Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, was writing about an interesting book by David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? – Translation and the Meaning of Everything. Among other authors Bellos has translated the Albanian author Ismail Kadare into English – from the French, not the Albanian language. This is called “indirect translation”, contrary to the direct translation from the source to the target language. Depending on the question if the translator translates into his or her native language, or from his native language into the target language, direct translations are differentiated into so-called “L1” or “L2” translations. Many experts view L2 translations with scepticism or reject them completely, while some consider indirect translations as acceptable when there are no translators available for this particular combination of languages.

I think what counts at the end of the day is the quality of the translation, no matter if it is L1, L2, or indirect. Of course, chances that the translation is excellent are much higher with direct translations. When writers are sometimes using a language that is not their native one, why shouldn’t some translators be able to do the same? (Since Nabokov grew up bilingual, I wouldn’t include him in this list of writers, but there are plenty of them and not the worst) –

An indirect translation might be a kind of second-best solution in cases when there are really no translators available for this particular combination. For Kadare it shouldn’t be a problem to be translated directly into English, since there is not one, but plenty of literary translators for that combination.

But Kadare is a special case: he revised and rewrote all his books that were originally published in the time of communism in Albania when he prepared them for publication in France. That means that a translation of the same book from French to English contains a sometimes very different text than when you would make a direct translation from the Albanian version. And for the novels originally published before 1990 Kadare considers the French and not the Albanian version as the “real”, uncensored text. The revised editions of the pre-1990 novels of Kadare in Albanian language were published after the French versions, if I am not mistaken. For the past-1990 novels, the situation is different: as far as I see they are translated directly from Albanian to English because there is no need for a text revision.

There are also other authors we know mainly from indirect translations. The works of Israel Bashevis Singer are usually translated from English – there are even a lot of people that think Singer was an English-language author. Especially in the case of the translations of Singer to German that is a real pity: Yiddish is so close to German, so why not translate the books directly? (The result would be a very different text, much more close to the original, as I can say from practical experience when I made a sample translation of one of his stories once from the original text to German, comparing the result with the “official” translation from English)

Why do publishers choose to publish indirect translations instead of direct ones? One reason may indeed be a shortage of available translators for the respective combination – although this case may be much rarer as some publishers make us believe. But the problem exists: when I investigated for the possibilities to translate a book from Indonesian to Bulgarian, I realized that there is only one person who can do the job – now imagine if he would be not available for some reason: the only option remaining would be to work with an indirect translation. Otherwise the book would be never available for the potential readers whose native language is Bulgarian and who don’t read in other languages. Although an indirect translation might not be perfect, in the best case it could be a reasonable approximation of the original text. And that would be still far superior then the virtual non-existence of a book in that particular language.

Another reason for indirect translations may be that in some cases publishers can save money – it is cheaper to translate from languages where you can find plenty of competing translators than from languages where there are only a very few translators, or where possibly the translation rights might be cheaper to acquire (depending on the contractual relationships between the involved publishers, the author and the literary agency).

Also literary agents can play a role in this process. Agents try to increase the income of their clients (and by that their own income), so they try to redistribute money from other stages of the book value chain – mainly the publishing houses, but obviously to a growing extent also from translators – into the pockets of their writing clientele, by auctioning off book and translation rights, increasing the royalties for the author, etc., and by that forcing everybody else in the book value chain to decrease their income. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, as long as professional and ethical standards are respected, which is not always the case.

A particular vicious example is a recent case in which Egyptian bestselling author Alaa al Aswany and his agent Andrew Wiley (together with Knopf Doubleday publishers) are involved and that was made public by the Threepercent website of the University of Rochester.

A completely unacceptable treatment of a literary translator – and hard to believe but obviously true: a world famous author, the Godfather of all literary agents and a renowned publishing house use their combined power and leverage to cheat on a hard working professional, for reasons that are as it seems of exclusively pecuniary nature.

By the way, I find it very interesting to see the approach of different writers to the question of translations of their works. While some authors take a great interest and discuss details of the translations with their translators, or even organize like Günter Grass (on their own costs) workshops for their translators to ensure a high quality of the translations, others like Thomas Bernhard show the extreme opposite approach. From an interview with Werner Wögerbauer, conducted 1986 in Vienna:

“W.: Does the fate of your books interest you?

B.: No, not really.

W.: What about translations for example?

B.: I’m hardly interested in my own fate, and certainly not in that of my books. Translations? What do you mean?

W.: What happens to your books in other countries.

B.: Doesn’t interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It’s a book by the person who translated it. I write in the German language. You get sent a copy of these books and either you like them or you don’t. If they have awful covers then they’re just annoying. And you flip through and that’s it. It has nothing in common with your own work, apart from the weirdly different title. Right? Because translation is impossible. A piece of music is played the same the world over, using the written notes, but a book would always have to be played in German, in my case. With my orchestra!”

And for those of you who are familiar with Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt’s books with the untranslatable titles Quand Freud voit la mer and Quand Freud attend le verbe, it may be not surprising that I am very sympathetic to Bernhard’s opinion. A translation is indeed always a different book, and sometimes – as is the case with the terms created by Freud in the framework of psychoanalysis, the meaning and specific connotation of central words and expressions are so inseparably linked to the particular language in which they were created (in the case of psychoanalysis: German) that each translation is already an interpretation, over-simplification, reduction of ambiguity, and even falsification of the original text. – But I guess I am digressing a bit. The highly interesting books by Goldschmidt would deserve a more detailed review as is possible here.

Translations are a wide field – I have the feeling that I will return to the issue again sooner or later.


David Bellos: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? – Translation and the Meaning of Everything, Particular Books, 2012

Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt: Quand Freud attend le verbe, Buchet Chastel, 2006

Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt: Quand Freud voit la mer, Buchet Castel, 2006

Chad W. Post: A Cautionary Tale

Chad W. Post: The Three Percent Problem, Open Letter, e-book, 2011

The interview with Thomas Bernhard was originally published in the autumn issue 2006 of Kultur & Gespenster, the English translation by Nicholas Grindell was published here.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

The Kraus Project


This review is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen is a hybrid book.

It contains on the upper part of each page on the left side the original German text of four essays and a poem by the Austrian author Karl Kraus, mirrored by the English translation of the respective text on the opposite right page.

On the lower part of each page are numerous footnotes that are sometimes longer than Kraus’ text itself.  The footnotes are partly by Jonathan Franzen, partly by the Kraus scholar Paul Reitter, partly by the German-Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlmann, like Franzen an admirer of Kraus. Franzen is also the translator of Kraus’ texts.

Since Karl Kraus is almost unknown in the English-speaking world, the publisher obviously thought it a good idea to bring this book on the market with Jonathan Franzen as author on the title page. But again, this book is a translated and annotated collection of some of Kraus’ texts.

A few words about Karl Kraus:

coming from a wealthy assimilated Jewish family, Kraus grew up in Vienna at the end of the 19th century. Vienna was at that time a melting pot of people and ideas. Literature and theater (two lifelong passions of Kraus) were at its height, Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis that revolutionized later many aspects of our lives, Mahler and Schönberg revolutionized music, Adolf Loos, Kraus closest friend revolutionized architecture, the Vienna school of economists revolutionized economics, the Vienna Circle and Ludwig Wittgenstein revolutionized philosophy. All kind of modern ideologies came to light in that period in Vienna, including the “modern” racial Antisemitism and its natural reaction, Zionism, whose main propagandist was the journalist Theodor Herzl, a former colleague of Kraus who would become one of his most hated targets.

“Vienna’s streets are paved with culture; the streets of other capitals are paved with asphalt”,

is a popular aphorism by Kraus.

In this hotbed of culture and ideologies the typical Kaffeehauskultur developed where each faction of intellectuals had their favorite coffeehouses where they met and engaged in group and cartel building, gossiping, writing and reading. Kraus was part of this culture, but never belonged to any group. One of his most remarkable features is that he successfully obtained his absolute independence during all his intellectual life.

Kraus’ main “work” are the roughly 40,000 pages of his journal Die Fackel (The Torch), which he published between 1899 and 1936. In the first years, he admitted every now and then guest authors but from 1912 on, he wrote the journal exclusively by himself.

Die Fackel had a blog-like feel: Kraus’ was publishing whenever he had something to say and about whatever he felt he needed something to say. Although literature and theater were always prominent topics in Die Fackel, Kraus was an avid reader of the Austrian and foreign press – and from here he took most of his inspirations.

Kraus was writing about foreign and local policy, about the situation of workers in the factories, about women’s rights, he was an early advocate of equal rights of homosexuals, and he was an everyday observer of the journalism in Austria, which was in an extremely bad shape according to Kraus.

This opposition to the frequently badly written journalism made Kraus many enemies, especially since he combined it with irony and sarcasm, but also with undeniable truths. His lawyer was for sure a very busy man and it is said that Kraus won almost all his court cases. He knew the rules and acted within these rules very efficiently to expose corruption, nepotism, stupidity and wrong use of language.

He did all this in a unique style, frequently playing with words and creating a richness of aphorisms that may be rivaled only by Lichtenberg. He was also a stage persona: he gave more than 700 performances reading, singing, acting alone on a stage – his audience consisted mainly of addicted Kraus fans; Elias Canetti for example said in his autobiography that he visited more than 300 of Kraus’ unique performances. Kraus must have been a magnetic personality that had many people under his spell.

The two main pieces in The Kraus Project are Kraus’ most famous essays on the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine and on the Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy.

Heine is for Kraus on the one hand a great and extremely popular poet. Many of his poems were turned into popular songs and are part of the folk poetry. But Heine’s followers turn his spirit into something superficial. And this is not by accident, it is because of specific virtues in Heine’s works. In Kraus’ times there was a firm belief of many intellectuals that there was a deep difference between Romance and German culture. As Kraus put it:

Two strains of intellectual vulgarity: defenselessness against content and defenselessness against form. The one experiences only the material side of art. It is of German origin. The other experiences even the rawest of materials artistically. It is of Romance origin. To the one, art is an instrument; to the other, life is an ornament. In which hell would the artist prefer to fry? He’d surely still rather live among the Germans. For although they’ve strapped art into the Procrustean Folding Bed of their commerce, they’ve also made life sober, and this is a blessing: fantasy thrives, and every man can put his own light in the barren window frames. Just spare me the pretty ribbons!…”

Austria, although linguistically part of German culture, is for Kraus deeply affected by the “French” poet Heine. Even the biggest Anti-semites “forgave” Heine his Jewish origin, just because his verses appeal so much to the tendency of most of the Vienna literati to gloss over everything with patches of jokes and irony. (I owe The Kraus Project the information that young Adolf Hitler in his Vienna years supported an initiative to build a monument for Heine – Heine’s poems were later not removed from the school books in Nazi Germany, just his name; it was all supposed to be “folk poetry” then).

While the Heine essay is very acerbic in it’s evaluation of the poems of this great German writer, the big hater Kraus shows in the other main essay that he can be also a great admirer and lover: he re-discovers the Austrian actor, singer, playwright Johann Nestroy, a popular performer of the first part of the 19th century who fell into oblivion soon after his death.

That Nestroy is nowadays considered to be one of the greatest authors for theater in German  is almost exclusively a result of the decades of Kraus’ efforts to make him again popular. I love Nestroy’s plays, and there is hardly anything (with the exception of Shakespeare, and the obscure play Datterich by Ernst Elias Niebergall, written in Darmstadt dialect) that I enjoy more on a stage than his plays. To me, the Nestroy essay is Kraus’s best essay – the Heine piece, although very interesting, shows also a side of Kraus that is not very appealing: the text is not free from Anti-semitic slurs.

Franzen’s translation is a heroic and brave effort and mostly very decent in my opinion. Kraus is extremely difficult to translate and that he tackled this task deserves a lot of respect.

The footnotes are frequently related directly to the text. Paul Reitter adds a lot of his knowledge about Kraus, much to the profit of the reader. Also many of Franzen’s and Kehlmann’s footnotes are interesting. The one thing that surprised me was that Franzen is dragging the reader a lot into his personal life during the time he lived in Germany and Austria as a student. We learn many details about the person Jonathan Franzen, including the story of his failed first marriage, and a short bout of mental illness when he was in Germany. If you like Jonathan Franzen as an author (I do), you might as well enjoy this part of the annotations, but if not you will have to skip some of them. I am still wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to split the book in two: a translation of Kraus only, and a longer essay with Franzen’s view of Kraus.

Kraus was a larger-than-life author. His play Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind) is about 800 pages long. The Kraus Project gives some insight in part of his work, but those who would like to discover the full Kraus and also the Vienna of his times (because most of his work can be only understood from the context) should maybe read in parallel also Carl Schorske’s excellent book Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture.

Let me close with a poem by Karl Kraus in which he explains why he kept silent for a long time after the Nazis took power in Germany:

Let no one ask what I’ve been doing since I spoke.
I have nothing to say
and won’t say why.
And there’s stillness since the earth broke.
No word was right;
a man speaks only from his sleep at night.
And dreams of a sun that joked.
It passes; and later
it didn’t matter.
The Word went under when that world awoke,

Man frage nicht, was all die Zeit ich machte.
Ich bleibe stumm;
und sage nicht, warum.
Und Stille gibt es, da die Erde krachte.
Kein Wort, das traf;
man spricht nur aus dem Schlaf.
Und träumt von einer Sonne, welche lachte.
Es geht vorbei;
nachher war’s einerlei.
Das Wort entschlief, als jene Welt erwachte.


Jonathan Franzen: The Kraus Project, Fourth Estate, London 2013

Carl Emil Schorske: Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, Vintage 1980

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.